A two-day online forum Thursday and Friday gave residents, business and government leaders a look at what’s needed and what resources are available to bring economic prosperity to a broad region as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

The Rural Community Prosperity Summit, hosted by Hancock College and the nonprofit EconAlliance, was designed to foster hope and opportunity, asset building, and wealth creation in communities inside the region consisting of northern Santa Barbara County, southern San Luis Obispo County and western Kern County.

In addition to a main session Thursday, the summit included breakout sessions on specific topics both days, and two of those focused on enhancing regional broadband service and economic and workforce development, issues that are closely tied together.

High-speed internet

Chris Chirgwin, CEO of Lanspeed and chairman of the Broadband Consortium Pacific Coast — North, said the COVID-19 response has created a greater reliance on high-speed internet access, noting that U.S. internet traffic has increased 40% since the start of the pandemic in mid-March.

“[Broadband has] become a critical part of our infrastructure, and we need to deliver that to all of our constituents in the Central Coast Community,” he said.

Bill Simmons, executive director of the consortium, agreed: “Broadband is the fourth utility.”

Chirgwin explained the consortium’s concept of creating a North County fiber optic ring that will provide high-speed internet access to areas like the Cuyama Valley, which essentially has none for residents, and pockets with no or limited options, like Los Alamos and the Santa Ynez Valley.

The ring would provide fiber optic links from Santa Maria along Highway 166 into Kern County, along Highway 154 to Santa Barbara, into Vandenberg Air Force Base and to Grover Beach, where undersea cables provide international links.

Vicki Conner, executive director of EconAlliance, said the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians has high-speed fiber optics connecting its Buellton training center with the reservation and casino and plans to extend that service to its Camp 4 property.

“The tribe is approaching it with a regional perspective and is interested in sharing it with the community,” said Simmons.

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Chirgwin said it will require involvement by many stakeholders from all sectors to create the ring of high-speed access.

Economic development

Many representatives of chambers of commerce listed broadband internet access and a high quality of life among their economic goals that align with those of the Center for Community Prosperity.

But they also had unique needs that ranged from revitalizing Santa Maria’s downtown and attracting more high-tech businesses in Lompoc to improving infrastructure in Buellton and diversifying the economy of southern San Luis Obispo County.

Leaders in various industries said they see a variety of opportunities as well as barriers holding back economic development for residents and businesses alike.

Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, said farmers need to improve efficiency as they are asked to produce more with less land, limited water supplies and fewer people.

Skyrocketing unemployment and failing infrastructure were cited as overarching issues by Lindy Hatcher, executive director of the Home Builders Association of the Central Coast, but she said private businesses and government agencies working on multiple issues together could solve many problems.

Ben Oakley of Pacific Coast Energy Co. said the COVID-19 pandemic pointed out problems in the supply chain, citing the shortage of toilet paper and potential shortages of meat and medicines.

“That also applies to the energy supply,” he said. “We don’t want to be dependent on foreign oil when we’re producing it locally.”

He also pointed out the shortage of affordable housing, which Robin Bornino of the Santa Maria Valley Contractors Association said would improve if government tacked on fewer fees.

Hatcher agreed that “every fee widens the affordability chasm” and said streamlined permit processes would also help with economic development.